A Modestly Bold Proposal

letter-447577_1280

I received the following letter from my friend Rabbi Dr Cardozo. The sentiments expressed therein will resonate with many. Some may cynically and perhaps correctly consider the notion a pipe dream. Yet it strikes me as close enough to the realm of possibility that it would be irresponsible not to make the attempt. Any effect, in whole or in part, it has upon the President could only be positive.

Rabbi Cardozo plans to run the open letter in Israeli publications, and is known to deliver on his announced intentions. We wish him well.

Dear President Peres.

There are moments in a man’s life when one needs to speak up. This is when something most dramatic has happened that necessitates a response. With your recent appointment as the President of the State of Israel, I felt I must speak my mind.

First some background: I am the child of a totally assimilated family and I grew up with both a Christmas tree and a Menorah. I found my way to Judaism after a great deal of struggle. It was a major upheaval in my life. I had to somehow become reborn and the “delivery” was hard and painful. However, once I discovered the grandeur of Judaism, I convinced my parents of its beauty and they decided to have “chupah and kiddushin”, i.e. a traditional religious wedding ceremony. This was 30 years after their civil marriage! To be honest, all this happened so long ago that I had almost totally forgotten about it…

Until last week, when you, Mr. Peres, were sworn in as our new President. When I heard you speak at the Knesset about our future, your dreams, and the Jewish people in general, I realized that I had an obligation to write you this letter. The reason is more than obvious. For many of my younger years I did not know where I belonged and who I was. Was I a Jew or was I a gentile? I had no identity and let me tell you: Nearly nothing is worse than that. In a world in which everyone is doing his utmost best to make you everybody else, you have to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight to decide who you actually are. I was fortunate enough to make that decision myself and so I decided to be a fully fledged Jew. “He who finds himself, loses his misery”, Matthew Arnold once wrote.

And that brings me to you, Mr. President. We, in Israel, have lost our identity. Many of us no longer know who we are. We all recognize that we are in dire need of a new vision for Israel’s and our own future. There is a need for a powerful voice for change and our eyes now turn to you. Newspapers have already been imploring you to uproot corruption, to promote civility, battle domestic violence, mend Arab-Jewish relations, to foster economic relations with Israel’s neighbors and ,obviously, to advance peace in the Middle East. But however important these goals are, they are missing the point. All of these serious problems are the symptoms of the real inescapable crisis which has befallen us and that is the need to deal with our own identity. Let us not fool ourselves: A large percentage of our young people have no idea who they are. They are asked to serve in Tzahal, the Israeli army, risking their lives for this State without really knowing anymore why they should. Many of our top leaders in the Knesset have virtually no knowledge of their Jewishness or look down on it due to an erroneous upbringing in their younger years. More and more of our fellow Jews throughout the country lack Jewish self understanding and wonder why they should live in this beautiful country called Israel. It is only a matter of time before we will find ourselves confronted with a majority of fine young people who will be struggling with an identity crisis of such proportions that many will leave this country out of sheer bewilderment. And let us be honest: It is extremely dangerous. It threatens the very existence of our people and our State. Men can starve from a lack of identity as much as they can from a lack of bread.

What is Jewish identity? Already before the establishment of the State of Israel, many have tried to disconnect their identity from authentic Judaism. Yiddish speaking societies were created, Juedische Wissenschaft and Literarische Gesellschaften, as well as the Bund and various Jewish Cultural events and movements. In this way, people hoped to stay Jewish while living mainly gentile lives. In our own days we have told our Israeli youth that to be a soldier in the army is the climax of Jewishness and that Zionism is the new religion. It was anticipated that all those movements and ideologies would successfully replace the old Judaism. But it was not to be. In retrospect it must be realized that all of these attempts have actually confused our people. These ideologies were not able to promote the sort of elevating spirit which would make one thoroughly proud of his or her Jewishness, nor did they provide the same kind of “destiny” that our forefathers enjoyed for thousands of years.

These movements did not give us a mission, that, if necessary, we would be prepared to die for. It is true that there are great soldiers who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for our country, but how long can this last unless we give them more than just a country? Men die only for that by which they lived. Ultimately, man will only live a meaningful life when he knows that there is something worth dying for which is eternal.

The moment that we Jews began to define ourselves horizontally, we found ourselves prey to a range of syndromes from insecurity to aggression, from self hatred to narrow ethnic pride. Like our forefather Yaakov after his wrestling with the angel, we started to limp.

This problem, as no other, stands at the centre of modern Jewish and Israeli life. As long as we do not give our people a sense of ultimate Jewish meaning, we will not be able to change their attitude towards life. No nation can live on a borrowed identity. We will not be able to promote civility, battling domestic violence and corruption if we do not first become aware of whom we are. And as long as we continue to be messengers who forgot their message, we will not be able to cause any real change in ourselves or in the world.

To be a Jew is to be moral heir of those who stood at Sinai and to pledge oneself to live by the truth of the great foundations of Judaism and to be part of a Kingdom of Priests; To be part of a nation which is dedicated to the wellbeing of all mankind through the teachings of the Torah and as such to be a moral agent. To be a Jew is to celebrate Shabbath, the greatest institution of liberty the world has ever seen and to eat kosher because there is dignity and holiness to the act of consumption and to be obsessed with the spirit of our prophets.

We must admit that all that we have gleaned during the past years is that, in the long run, Jewish identity can only be understood in religious terms, albeit in terms foreign to other religions. We can not predicate our survival on remaining a culture, a constellation of fading memories or some kind of nostalgia or even on the Israeli army or Zionism. We must accept this. It is an inescapable feeling that we have somehow lost the script of the great Jewish story and we must now re-discover it.

It is here that your role as President of Israel becomes crucial. You could either be highly successful or you could be a total failure. The choice is yours. At this hour there is one characteristic which must stand out: Unbridled courage. You must lead the people back to their Jewish roots and do this by personal example and with a clear vision. You are in the fortunate position of no longer needing to prove yourself. You are now old enough and wise enough to realize that a great man can ignore the applause of the multitude once he knows himself. There is a moment when man has to realize that instead of being dedicated to fame he is dedicated to a truth which surpasses his own interest.

Therefore: Take a keen interest in Judaism, start learning its great wisdom and forget what you may have learned in your youth which seemingly turned you away from your roots. Try to rediscover it for your own sake. Let it do something to your very being. Assemble Jewish religious thinkers at your presidential home and listen to their words. Go to the synagogue on Shabbath and festivals and try to relive these great Jewish prayers. Make Kiddush, the blessing over the wine, at home and sing the songs of our holy days. No, I am not asking you to become orthodox but to live a life which abounds of a great love for Judaism, for everybody to see.

Do not be afraid of what people will say when you make this change of direction. Nobody knows better than you that one can only answer for one’s courage when one is in danger. Inspire people on radio and television to follow your example, tell them what you have discovered and organize open tents of learning in which both secular and religious Jews study Jewish texts concerning civility and tolerance. Call these tents the Ohalei Avraham, the tents of Abraham, the first Jew who put us on the map and who had the courage, when he was as old as you are now, to change his ways. His message became eternal and so could yours.

Return to your people what they have lost. This nation is thirsty for identity and spirituality and it is your task to show them the road back. You have done great things for the State of Israel but like all of us also made mistakes. But you can now remedy many of your past wrongs.

By doing so, you will have achieved more in your years as President of the State of Israel than you did for decades as a member of the Israeli parliament. If you live up to this challenge, you will indeed leave a legacy making all your other achievements look pale in comparison. Only then, when the citizens of Israel return to themselves, will they return to civility and domestic peace. Only when we all know who we actually are, will we be able to negotiate peace out of strength and not out of weakness as we do now. (Would it not be wiser to look after our security first before trying to make peace?)

Finally, Mr. President, we are in need of a voice of greatness and it is time for you to deliver. I believe you can do it.

It is courage, courage, courage that raises the blood of life
to unparalleled splendor!

Sincerely,
Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Dean, The David Cardozo Academy

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13 Responses

  1. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Perhaps this will be our last Tisha B’av. A few paragraphs from HaAretz last week; forgive their rancor and read past it!

    Until ignorance divides us
    By Yair Ettinger

    Last Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received three guests in his office, all with the double-barreled title of rabbi and professor: They are well-known scholars among American Jews and fairly well-known in Israel: Rabbi David Hartman, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is associated with liberal Orthodoxy; Rabbi Arnie Eisen, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS); and Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Reform Movement’s rabbinic seminary.
    Far from the discriminating eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, the earth beneath the prime minister’s office did not tremble when Olmert addressed each of his conversants as “rabbi” and devoted time to those who would like to find loopholes in the wall put up by the rabbinic establishment.
    The three found in Olmert a favorable view of initiatives to “increase Jewish identity among Jews” in Israel and abroad. They declined to elaborate on the content of the meeting, but a talk with Rabbi Ellenson, one of the most influential leaders among American Jewry, indicated which way the wind is blowing.
    During his visit to Israel, Ellenson had a hard time getting over the depressing impression made by senior Israeli figures a few days before his departure from the United States at an international gathering of university presidents. On Saturday night, he related, a rabbi recited havdalah [marking the conclusion of Shabbat] for all the participants, and Ellenson noticed the Israelis. “One of them, the president of a very large university in Israel, told me he had never seen such a service and never even heard of its existence.”
    He was greatly saddened, said Ellenson. “I hate the word ignorance, I prefer to be more gentle, but I know that’s how it is. What does it mean that an intellectual doesn’t know what havdalah is? How would you describe it? And he is not the only one among the Israelis.”
    Since 2001, Ellenson has been the world president of HUC, and is leading the Reform movement alongside Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. During those years, the movement has become more Zionist and also more halakhic [following Jewish law], processes that are associated with Ellenson, who is unique among those who have led the Reform movement in that he grew up in an Orthodox home. The smiling man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, even tells biting jokes about Reform Jews that he heard in his father’s home in Virginia.
    Halakha is also his area of academic expertise. In the 1970s he wrote his doctoral thesis on Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, the founder of the Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Germany in the 19th century. Today he continues with searches of rabbinic rulings and the responsa of Orthodox rabbis from the 18th century to those to date and he writes on Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, a leading Polish rabbi in the 19th century and one of the harbingers of religious Zionism; Rabbi Haim David Halevy, who was the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and other rabbis. The common denominator of these rabbis is the halakhic solutions they offered for resolving the tension between tradition and modern life in a wide spectrum of areas. “It’s not that I always identify with all their responsa, but I appreciate the efforts they made to cope with the challenges of the time,” says Ellenson in Hebrew, which he prefers to use here. “I see them as a model and an example for me.”

    Who knows – perhaps Ellenson, then perhaps Peres, then…We are not allowed to give up hope.

  2. Yaakov Kayman says:

    Having had the great pleasure of hearing Rav Nathan Lopez Cardozo speak, I can say I truly respect and admire him. Even so, I must say that the chances of an evil person like Shimon Peres

    (I usually make the samekh into a shin, but that would result in my post being rejected)

    heeding the rabbi’s wonderful letter and then acting upon it are nil.

    Peres is one of the leaders of those Jewish citizens of this state of ours (I live in Yerushalayim) who confuse the adjective “Israeli” for a noun, and one of the leading promoters of the split between said “Israelis” and Jews.

    While I certainly wish the good rabbi, and all of us Jews in Eretz Yisrael and worldwide, the best of luck, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Peres to cease becoming an “Israeli” and become a Jew, let alone lead other Jews.

    Yaakov Kayman, Ramot Bet, Yerushalayim, (the Land and State of) Israel

  3. HILLEL says:

    I THINK WE ALL AGREE:

    Publish the letter, as written, but chenge the addressee as follows:
    “To the Jewish People who dwell in Zion”

  4. Yisroel Moshe says:

    R’ Yitzchak,

    Sending a letter to Shimon Peres asking him to use his political power to help re-establish an authentic Jewish identity for Israel’s youngsters would be the equivalent of sending a letter to Menashe ben Chizkiahu asking him to lead a revolution against Idol Worship.

    There is not a Jewish person alive today who has done more to try to destroy all vestiges of (Torah) Judaism from our midsts. Peres’s hatred of Torah and the Torah observant public not withstanding, he has lead the charge to destroy the Jewish people as a whole.

    *He entered into phony peace agreements with our enemies in the hope of destroying the JEWISH state.

    *He removed all references to Judaism in the Tzahal’s code of ethics.

    *He supported countless education bills that would help to educate Israeli children to not know they are Jewish.

    *He has made clear in many published statements that he dispises the idea of the Jewish people as a unique nation.

    It is ironic that Rabbi Cardozo, who is a great Torah scholar and thinker that I admire greatly, would send this letter to the person MOST responsible for the calamities that befall the Jewish people today. It would take a book to highlight all of the treacherous acts perpetrated by this Rasha.

    There is some peripheral value in writing such a letter, but at what expense? When a person is a Rasha of historical proportions, perhaps we would be best not to call such a person as “a voice of greatness”.

    All the best,

    YM

  5. Yisroel Moshe says:

    R’ Yitzchak,

    Sending a letter to Shimon Peres asking him to use his political power to help re-establish an authentic Jewish identity for Israel’s youngsters would be the equivelent of sending a letter to Menashe ben Chizkiahu asking him to lead a revolution against Idol Worship.

    There is no a Jewish person alive today that I can think of who has done more to try to destroy all vestiges of (Torah) Judaism from our midsts. Peres’s hatred of Torah and the Torah observant public not withstanding, he has lead the charge to destroy the Jewish people as a whole.

    *He entered into phony peace agreements with our enemies in the hope of destroying the JEWISH state.

    *He removed all references to Judaism in the Tzahal’s code of ethics.

    *He supported countless education bills that would help to educate Israeli children to not know they are Jewish.

    It is ironic that Rabbi Cardozo, who is a great Torah scholar and thinker that I admire greatly, would send this letter to the person MOST responsible for the calamities that befall the Jewish people today. It would take a book to highlight all of the treacherous acts perpetrated by this Rashah.

    There is some peripheral value in writing such a letter, but at what expense? When a person is a Rasha of historical perportions, perhaps we would be best not to call such a person as “a voice of greatness”.

    All the best,

    YM

  6. David says:

    I could not agree more with every word of this letter, but unfortunately, one has to be crazy to think that Peres (or the vast majority of Israeli’s chilonim) would take this with any degree of seriousness. I guess it’s still worthwhile to publish in the hope that it will inspire some thought among at least a few people.

  7. michoel halberstam says:

    This is a beautiful letter, with which cannot in good conscience disagree. However, I would like to suggest that we need to engage more with our fellow Jews, so that we do not appear to be preaching to anyone. The greatest risk of assertions like those in this piece is that anyone to whom you are speaking will assume, wrongly that your advice implies not just criticism, but the hidden message that you, or we, as observant Jews, really believe we are better than they are. I don’t know how to confront this, but we should always be aware of it, because it is the fly in ointment.

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein: Some may cynically and perhaps correctly consider the notion a pipe dream. Yet it strikes me as close enough to the realm of possibility that it would be irresponsible not to make the attempt. Any effect, in whole or in part, it has upon the President could only be positive.

    Ori: I am one of those cynics. Not so much about the effect on the President himself, but about the effect on the country at large (the real audience for the open letter). The Israeli President is supposed to be a symbol of the country, like the British Monarch. However, most Israelis, especially the younger generation, don’t have that much respect for the presidency – it’s really a sinecure for aging politicians.

    If you want to influence young chiloni Israelis, you’ll need to try and influence somebody who won their respect, not somebody who is supposed to be respected because of their position.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    I’m not sure that an open letter is the way to motivate Shimon Peres, but nothing is lost by it and maybe others reading it will reassess their own directions.

  10. HILLEL says:

    VERY IDEALISTIC, VERY NOBLE, BUT TOTALLY UNREALISTIC!

    I wish it could happen, but do you really think that Shimon Peres, the poster boy of left-wing Goyishkeit, is really going to make a 180-degree turn in his life simply because Cardozo has written and published a letter?

  11. Garnel Ironheart says:

    First of all, a brilliant letter. There isn’t a sentiment expressed within it that can be argued against and its passion is evident.

    Second of all, a complete waste of ink. Since 1991 Shimon Peres has demonstrated far more concern for the implacable enemies of the Jewish people than he has for the Jewish people themselves. At the age of 80, still convinced that Yasser Arafat, y”sh, was a man of peace and that no mistakes were made by him in his attempts to bring “peace” to Israel, it is extremely doubtful this letter will ever get passed his screeners and reach his desk. Even if it does, it doesn’t fit his vision of a secular “new Middle East” in which religion is abolished and everyone builds hotels together.

    I should note, parathetically, that Juedische Wissenschaft should not be listed amongst those philosophies that detached Jews from Judaism. Juedische Wissenschaft is the philosophy of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary of Rav Azriel Hildesheimer which was very dedicated to created rabbonim who would be loyal to Torah as well as knowledgeable about the secular world.

  12. yitz says:

    Although HaRav Cardozo’s words resound with you, he is shunned by most if not all of the Charedim here in Artzeinu HaKedosha. Rav Adlerstein, I think that Yerushalayim needs you more than LA does. Come home!

  13. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I can’t help but identify with the heartfelt plea of R. Cardozo, whom I and others greatly admire. If such a thing as a sea change in the attitudes of President Peres (how our hearts and stomachs pain us to hear that title with the name of that man!) were to happen, it would be truly a gift from the Almighty. I would give such a phenomenon a probability of very close to zero, not only only on the natural level. but also because we are in the culmination of an epic historical struggle between good and evil. This is a struggle which encompasses Israel and the entire world. Instead of making a soul-searching examination of his ways and changing them, he is more likely to reinforce his direction.
    If Mr. Peres were to answer R. Cardozo candidly about how he feels about this question of the identity of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, I believe he would say something like this:

    Dear Esteemed Rabbi Dr. Cardozo:
    While I respect your concern for the future of your people and its current predicament, I cannot agree with your prescription for the future. The Jewish genius has given many great gifts to mankind and has brought much progress to the human species. Most progress has grown out of deep inner conflict containing not a little human tragedy, and the current situation is no exception.
    The Jewish tradition is a great accomplishment in that it has produced the great minds which have encompassed the old and seen beyond it to the new. The Jewish consciousness has evolved from a tribal to a universal awareness. I am fully aware that there are universal values implicit in Jewish sources, but that is not enough. The seed must be planted in the ground of the greater world, decay and grow into a plant which will be the property of all mankind. It is time after 4000 years for the identity of Jews, which has protected that small tribe and its innate quality from destruction, to make a final sacrifice of its particularity for the sake of the greater western world.
    I am not such a fool as to ignore the pain, suffering and destruction which have been visited upon the Jewish nation for all these many years. But the existence of the Jewish nation, or any nation for that matter, is and can only be a means and not an end in itself. If we have left two millenia of exile for a new encapsulation of a tribe seeking survival uber alles, then we have failed. We must with wisdom and cleverness give over the true meaning of our existence to the world, beyond the exoteric narrative of G-d and people, even at the cost of our individual and collective existence. This is why it seems that I have often pursued policies which have seemed to many to be suicidal. The course which I pursue will not change and it must not change. Only the Jewish genius can save the Western world in general and Europe in particular from extinction. We must infect the secular Western culture with the Jewish virus, and it must be a secular Jewish virus. Anything else will not have the effect. This is the meaning of all of Jewish history, Israeli history and my political career. Those individuals who are unable to see any values except tribal values, and ultimately the tribal state, will face extinction. I am sure that a wise individual like yourself will find a way to contribute to such a new world.

    With best wishes, I am
    Shimon Peres
    (end of fictional response)

    The answer to this argument exists. The rest is commentary. Go and learn. Go and teach. Go and struggle. The war of Gog and Magog is beckoning.